19th century wierdness

Part of an occasional series on “lesser-known DC”

The “building” is so grotesquely out of place on the Senate side of the Capitol lawn. Surrounded by hurrying self-important staffers, high-priced lobbyists, and the constant hot bluster of politics, it’s quiet, cool, and enigmatic. It’s hopelessly impractical. It passes time, not legislation. Hundreds of thousands of people walk by it, and nobody knows it’s there.

It’s a hexagon with three entrances, descending down from street level. It has elaborate brick walls but no roof.

There’s a fountain in the center, originally provided with brass dippers for drinking; stone benches surround the fountain.

Through one barred opening you can see a strange grotto, with a waterfall and lush plantings. The grotto seems to lead off into unknown distances–there’s a dark cave, and water flowing down into some unseen stream.

It looks like no other building in Washington: quirky, whimsical and puzzling; a red brick anomaly, hidden and quiet and mysterious rather than pompous, forbidding  and imperial. From some angles, you can’t even really see it:


It’s an oddly disorienting building, confusing. What is this? Why is it here? What does it do? Where’s the door? Who’s in charge?

The grotto is especially odd–it’s a window onto an entirely different place, an impossible miniature landscape, and from the street level, you have no idea at all that the grotto exists. You can only see it from inside the building, and you can’t enter it. When you step out again, it vanishes, and you can’t quite figure out where the grotto was.


It’s the “Summer House,” designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1879.

Most people know about Olmsted. He was the foremost designer of parks in America. He designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Fairmont Park in  Philly: Rock Creek Park in DC; the “Emerald Necklace” in Boston. He did the master planning for the campuses of Berkeley and Stanford. He supervised the landscape architecture of the 1893 Columbian exposition. From roughly the end of the Civil War till his death in 1903 was the go-to guy  if you wanted a n urban park, a lovely estate, or a big garden. His work can be found in 26 states and three Canadian provinces

His most famous creation, done with his sometime partner Calvert Vaux, is Central Park in Manhattan. If you ever take the time to wander that park, you’ll notice how highly constructed and illusionistic it is. As you wander along, you’re carried into different “themed” spaces. There are rambling woods, and open meadows, and craggy rock cliffs, and beaux artes formal promenades. It’s not just an open space, or a green “space,” it’s a designed encounter with different types of landscapes. It feels “natural,” but it’s highly controlled and structured, highly programmatic.

From its origins, there were tensions between what Olmsted wanted people to do in his parks and what people actually did. Olmsted believed nature was elevating, moral, a counter to the brutal life of industrial America, but he designed it to be more so. The “Sheep Meadow” was for contemplation, not baseball games or military drill; you entered it from certain designed places, not randomly. “The Ramble” was supposed to evoke an English wood, not serve as a gay pickup spot. For Olmsted, nature was instructive, therapeutic, reformative.

The Summer House was supposed to be a place where you could stop and rest on your way up Capitol Hill. Listen to the waterfall, have a dipper of spring water, sit in the cool shade, and enjoy a building with no hierarchy, no lobby, no gatekeepers; half enclosed and half open, the antithesis of the grasping world of pragmatic politics.

If you were on your way to see your Congressman, or lobby a Senator, or deliver a petition or a bribe, the Summer House would offer you a place of weirdly magic quiet. It’s much more obvious and welcoming to the person who is coming up the hill, towards the Capitol. Coming down the hill, after having transacted you business with Congress, it’s almost invisible. There’s something impossible about the whole thing, something illusionistic.

The Stranger’s Guide for Washington City, published in 1881, says the red brick was supposed to be covered with ivy

Originally Olmsted wanted to put a second Summer House on the House side of the lawn, but Congress killed it. You can see why if you stop in. It’s entirely antithetical to politics as practiced on the hill. It’s exotic, instead of “real american.” It’s cryptic instead of gratingly obvious and cliched. It invites contemplation rather than action. It murmers rather than brays. It’s especially worth a visit on a hot summer day, when the sound of water and the damp air of the fountain and grotto really does have a cooling effect.

But it’s a remarkably manipulative and controlling little building all the same, and there’s something slightly occult about it, a little surreal–it reminds me of  Etent Donnes, a Duchamp installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that used to creep me out when I was in college. I actually find the Summer House slightly unsettling. I know of very few buildings that are so frankly puzzling and odd.

It fails as a building partly because it’s so strongly a rebuke, and a lecture about alternative values, but also because what might be seen as whimsy in a different context seems alien on capitol hill.

Capitol Hill at best is a grand public space: as a citizen, you approach it with a sense of ownership and national pride. The DC Mall can sometimes be an extremely emotionally moving place. To the degree that people care about “nation,” Capitol Hill is as close to the core of the nation as we can imagine. It’s about the public, and the Republic: the social, not the individual; group interests and needs, all being seen and seen to. Olmsted’s Summer House imposes interiority, like a dream remembered, and oddly, if the problem of politics is the difference between what you can see and what’s actually gong on, the Summer House ends up restating that problem.

Note: The modern architect of the capitol has done the Summer House a grave disservice by installing a cement floor. I don’t know this for a fact, but   would bet that Olmstead originally had a different kind of floor–crushed stone, or flagstone, or brick, and that at some point it was cemented over. The effect is awful, entirely out of keeping with the rest of the structure, and makes it look institutional and off-putting. If you visit, try to imagine it with flagstone pavers.




  • The thing I like most about this place is that it’s one of the few remnants of the Victorian Mall. I think there were more of these types of places, almost like secret gardens and groves on the Mall before the grand lawn plan that removed the greenery to make for a big open space in the early 20th C.

    Thanks for reminding me to revisit this place. I saw it when I first moved to DC and haven’t been back.

  • Mark Meigs wrote:

    The brickwork and squat arch is great. Is it like anything anywhere? A bit like the entrance to the Hay-Adams House by H. H. Richardson; or Sever Hall at Harvard? Or I guess some red brick and terra cotta stuff in Central Park? Like the more trogladite entrances of Furness and Evans buildings? I guess Victorian is the only word that can cover it.
    Those seats inside are remarkable and along with all the running water make me think of the public toilets in Roman towns. The one at Ephesus has the water going still. Tourists of a certain nationality known for heavy humor, sit down amid much hilarity and gesture and have their picture taken, sometimes with trousers undone, before their guide, glad of the chamber and seats to get his or her flock settled, launches into the jocular explanation. Meanwhile tourists with a slightly slyer sense of humor take the picture of all that activity and record taking.
    It is hard to imagine any group smaller than a bus tour filling the available seats in this monument. I count 7 along one side. Does that mean 28 all together? What armies of supplicants the architect imagined trooping up that hill and taking refreshment here. That bus station quality makes it democratic, perhaps, in the sense of large numbers of people processed. The numbers he imagined explains the bars protecting the grotto: refreshment was permitted, but no one was invited to step through the portal into that arcadian past. I guess that’s what you mean by “controlling.”

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